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Edited by Melissa Schack
Deborah Jang is a poet and artist who at 70 years old has published Float True, a book of poetry sharing her lifelong experiences. Based in Denver, Colorado and Oceanside, California, her poems couldn’t be more timely with their insight into racism, immigration, and climate change.
You mentioned Float True was on your bucket list. What insight can you offer from reflecting over your life?
The COVID pandemic, the effects of aging, and my philosophical leanings all attune me to my own mortality. Reflecting back, writing has been a quiet supplement to my visual art practice — a way to digest and respond to the rawness of life, with its large and small conundrums and perplexities, its unpredictability, its hard edges, as well as its wonder — a means of examining my place and purpose on the planet. Over the years, an intentionality has grown in me around writing, along with a desire to develop deeper skills and sensibilities. A few years ago, I was invited to a one-on-one writing mentorship through AWP (Association of Writers and Programs). I was paired with a talented and generous published poet, Kimberly L Becker, who encouraged me to submit individual poems to journals for publication. A few successes inspired the hope that a book deal was something I wanted to shoot for. That notion made it to my bucket list, as I now approach my 70th year.
I dubbed the potential book “Float True,” which title became the manuscript’s most enduring element while the contents were revised, shifted, shuffled, tightened, replaced, updated, censured, appended, and rearranged. I was anxious to address unfolding societal and personal challenges through the work. Privately, I thought of it as “a volume of my hems and haws and all the feels there with.” Persistence was key. Eventually, in June 2019, came the gratifying notice that Shanti Arts, LLC, a small press out of Maine, accepted the collection for publication!
I signed the contract, with the anticipated release in Spring 2020. Little did I suspect this momentous personal milestone would converge with a global pandemic as well as a national and necessary racial reckoning. “How auspicious,” I have come to think. My prayer is that the work meets the moment with grace and humility.
Looking back, I realize the yearn to write has been a gift on this life journey, providing release and reflection, leading to precious connections and valuable insights. My advice to other writers is to feel into their own yearns. Let them guide and inspire you, let ideas grow, read lots, be courageous and curious, seek out writing groups and advisors, put yourself out there. Trust life and your uniqueness to guide you, write your way into the wilds of the human drama, its beauty, its urgencies, its mystery.
2. Could you provide a sample of your poetry in Float True?
Float True is a cumulative swirl of family history, political disquiet, metaphysical musing, personal vicissitudes, and occasional outbursts of ecstatic joy in nature. I tried to arrange the poems to speak to one another and play off related or contrasting themes/moods. The book is meant to usher readers through an organic heart-mind “dump” that, like water, finds its intrinsic flow and rhythm. Here is a sampling from the collection:
The broken branch is greening.
The fisher folk returning.
The Rastaman full knowing
at the center of the sea.
Launch your sweet boat wisely,
Let its hull embrace you.
Let its bow uphold you through
life’s diligent undressing.
Waters yet are rising. Horrors
hulk horizons. Stroke strong
deep while keeping time
to the heart’s own beating.
Heaven’s underbelly floats
in soft configurations, each
clearing, a bright act of love.
Dwell full frontal there.
We come gift-wrapped in it,
the body’s largest organ,
swaddling the I of We.
Silken, flaky, flabby, firm, tattooed,
goose bumped, stretchy stretchy.
Pliable, porous, prickly too.
Peculiar familiar flaws.
We sink into the shape of it.
Scrub and shed it. Moisturize.
Ticklish membrane. Crinkly lines.
Pimpled dimples, hairy hide.
Touchable. Woundable. Healable, yes.
Bears us flinching through these times.
A map of scars. Silent, true.
Quiet witness to the bruise.
Repairs, reveals, sometimes weeps.
Swoons sunward to heaven’s heat.
However humble, a holy home.
Holds lifetimes tender to the bone.
Batons, boots, brotherhoods
crack the jawbone cursing,
blister seething eyes,
clamp a fierce throathold.
Salt drenched stories play out
in streets where justice
gasps on its last limb,
heaves truth before it dies
In one ragged breath,
one rush to judgment,
with one twitchy trigger finger
punctuating murder with a slur.
Looking up, I now see sky,
how it tried to warn us
Fall’s early chill, its hard
That nasty-breathed wind
all gossipy and proud
for no apparent reason--
Those goppish gaggles,
not so grand, squabbling south
and fast across the borderland--
Scientists say a flock knows
when to swerve and
where to sway
by correlative agreement
of one member with its
seven closest neighbors,
and them to theirs, and so on.
(A drama of swarm)
Exponential wholeness, then,
rises wingtip to wingtip
stirring up the light.
Had we all been sleeping?
Were we collectively unwise?
Will hate extinguish every star?
Can we rewrite the skies?
Vestige of the wonder years:
boy and dog rejoined.
Dark curls brush soft underbelly.
Tail would wag if it could.
Boy is nearly man now,
three or four heads taller,
hardly visits anymore.
Old dog has wasted nothing.
His time is very near.
How many mothers watched
their children slip out the bright door
in long ago bluster forgetting
to take the best friend?
How many left-behind dogs
nuzzle left-behind moms sunk into
sad couches for mutual repair?
In the story the father killed
fatted calf upon his son’s
homecoming. Today we wrap dog
in soft blankets of blessing.
Sweet farewell for dog and boy.
Double loss for one.
I walk older through these days.
The right hip grinds a little more,
the gait a cartoon totter.
I squint harder to read signs
hopefully in time to turn,
between lines the meanings blur.
The lower back complains and whines.
Upon rising help required.
Crank up volume and thermostat.
Comfy shoes, floppy hat.
Skin thins sagging here and there.
Each silence grows a little louder.
Each unrequited gesture burns
a little longer, cutting deeper.
Each bomb blasts far more ghastly.
Each hateful act more bloody still.
I squeeze the babies tighter, tighter,
bargain with the ancestors,
whisper out a prayer. Into silence
I go further where spry waters
flow between banks of joy
and sweat and sorrow. I
take a seat, breathe in, let go,
stretch these old legs and follow.
Browner than a paper bag,
feet flat as pancakes, just as wide.
Slow of tongue, softly spoken,
one eye cocked, the other worn.
Cucumber cool on occasion
Otherwise, full quirky human.
Fresh off the boat of gloss and game
bobbing in the fading light,
Poised just at the ocean side
for redemption’s twilight ride.
3. How has COVID-19 affected your career and your personal life?
The widespread quarantine to help slow the virus spread, I’m guessing, is a mixed experience for many. At first, it was hard to wrap my head around the pronouncements, chaos, and doomsday scenarios. Creativity was a bit stifled. Financial concerns resulted. I lost several art teaching gigs and have made difficult decisions about letting some dreams die for lack of funding. Plans for a launch party for Float True were scuttled. I miss my grandchildren terribly.
Now through the long haul, though, there is the opportunity to dig in and let the writing have its way. Time takes on a slower rhythmic quality, and the frenzy settles. Art-making and writing energies have returned and deepened. Like many, I have adapted to Zoom readings and meet ups. Resilience and flexibility in the face of these unprecedented challenges have tapped new directions and experiments. For example, I have started collaborating with other creatives on short multi-media videos around some of the poems in the book, which has been an artistic adventure as well as connective joy. Here are a couple links to these collaborative video collages:
4. Why is it important for people to support the arts, even during times of uncertainty?
I believe the arts sustain a perspective that helps people through the unknown. I have long felt a tug towards whatever lies behind or beyond or deep within the physical form. I notice that I am most comfortable exploring the spiritual dimension via poetry versus everyday conversation. I suspect that is because poetry operates on a particular plane of being, where the material, hard, and mechanistic world leaves off, or at least leaves room for meaning and mystery. Where hard edges of life can soften, meld, unify. Albert Einstein stated that problems cannot be solved from within the same systems that created them. Perhaps, then, poetry — and creative process in general — is the most legitimate language or salve to pour over the world’s brokenness, beyond the limits of convention.
5. What are your book recommendations for those who are attempting to quarantine?
During quarantine, it is an opportune moment to reflect on the forces that have converged to create or exacerbate our current predicaments. It is a time to explore one’s own response and core values and to come to terms with our own contributions towards resolution. Reflective writing like poetry can be helpful in grasping or approaching these understandings. Empathy for others — currently challenged on a large scale — can grow and be exercised, encouraged by artists and writers committed to righting wrongs and correcting humanity’s course toward freedom and liberation. I would recommend this random selection of books for these purposes:
Her next book always anticipated by her readers, Linda Hogan’s just-released collection of new poems, A History of Kindness, celebrates nature, native lives, and survival. It is tender in its sensibility, consistently returning the reader to Hogan’s deep connection with earth and earth’s creatures — all things that support life, justice, and breath.
Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown explores the universal heart cry for authentic belonging. This is a vital element of well-being and wholeness, yet elusive in a frenzied, outward-facing culture. A return to true self is the goal, and Brown’s hearty insights are fresh and poignant, especially at a time when life has turned upside down for many.
The T’ao te Ching Is one of the greatest works of wisdom literature, more than two millennia old, in which philosopher and sage Lao Tzu shares timeless truths with the world!
As the Covid crises has converged with historic protests and renewed urgency for valuing Black lives, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010 showcases the talent of the prolific and pioneering poet, Lucille Clifton. A treasure, it contains all eleven of Clifton’s collections (she died in 2010.). This book celebrates and unpacks her everyday life, her culture, her people, her survival.
More Myself is a new biographic work by Alicia Keyes, wherein she describes her artistic vision and process and her realization of her truest self. She steps readers through the journey towards her authenticity while navigating the music industry’s complexities. It is a confessional celebration of struggle, perseverance, openheartedness, and homecoming. Very relevant for creatives trying to negotiate these times with integrity.
Finally, I would humbly recommend my book Float True. It takes a quiet yet unflinching look at perplexities behind the multiple angsts sweeping the U.S. and the world. The book's eerie prescience addresses themes like sheltering in place, police brutality, earth’s majestic fragility, Colin Kaepernick, racism, immigration, authoritarianism, democracy, and hope.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.